he French Slasher movie "Haute Tension" has been re-titled "Switchblade Romance" for its North American
release. Why? I don't know. I suppose movie execs are talentless hacks rather
they are in France or America. Certainly the thought of needlessly renaming a
film is something right up these particular subspecies' alley. For the purpose
of this review, the movie is "Haute Tension", and that's how it will
"Haute Tension" opens with a young woman in a
hospital recounting the events that led to her being at said hospital. Flashback
to a few days earlier, as college chums Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex
(Maiwenn Le Besco) are on their way to stay with Alex's parents in the
countryside. The two plans to spend the time studying for upcoming tests,
although it's obvious Marie would rather study Alex instead. Later that night, a
sociopath in yellow work overalls arrives at the house armed with a shaving
razor and begins slaughtering the occupants. And oh yeah, before all this mayhem
occurred, we saw our killer sitting in his truck having sex with a severed head.
Running at a scant 85 minutes, "Haute Tension"
has no real original bone in its body (unless you consider the surprise twist at
the end). Even before the bloodletting happens (at about the 25-minute mark),
director Alexandre Aja goes a tad overboard with faux scary moments that never
pays off. A simple scene of a boy sleeping in bed gets the atmospheric treatment
for no particular reason. And you just know that the car won't start when it's
most needed, despite the fact that it was running fine just a few seconds ago.
After all, the only thing less reliable than Adult Authority in a Teen Slasher
movie is a car.
The center of gravity for the film is Cecile De France
(does her name mean "Cecile of France"?), who gives a convincing
performance as the terrified Marie. When the killer first appears and claims
Alex's parents, Marie is paralyzed with fear. She manages to shake it off just
long enough hide her presence in the guest room -- albeit after panicking a
whole lot. Her attempt to find a phone, and then a jack with which to plug the
phone in, offers up the first hour's most intense moments. Later, Marie finds
herself at a late-night gas station as the killer stalks her inside the
bathroom. Both sequences consist of long stalk moments where, by the end of the
sequence, nothing is solved -- but oh my was it intense while it was happening.
Maiwenn Le Besco ("The
Fifth Element") has less to do, and the character doesn't make nearly
the impression that France's character did. Not that it's Besco's fault, since
her character is chained up at one point and confined to the killer's truck at
another. She's basically indisposed during much of the film. Speaking of trucks,
the killer drives a beat-up truck that looks suspiciously like the Creeper's
beat-up road hog from "Jeepers
Creepers". As for the killer himself, he comes from the Michael Myers
and Jason school of killing -- a pure, unrelenting machine unconcern with
getting caught. Although he's obviously psychotic, we learn that the killer is
driven by a singular -- and understandable? -- desire.
There's a lot for fans of the genre to like about Alexandre
Aja's "Haute Tension", mostly because the film puts its brief running
time to great use. And while the conventions of the genre are present --
including a fruitless conversation with Useless Adults over a telephone -- it's
always a pleasure to see a movie that executes all the familiar elements this
bloody well. For gorefiends, the movie will be a treat. The uncut version
features some excellent killings, including a decapitation using a piece of
furniture and some choice bodily mutilations with that handy razor. There are
also a lot of impalings, stabbings, and a bat with attached barbwire goes to
town on a face with spectacular results.
As for characterization, one shouldn't expect too much.
There's almost no background on the characters, especially our heroine Marie. We
know only the simplest things about her: she's in college, she doesn't have a
boyfriend, and she has the hots for her friend. We also know that Alex doesn't swing
that way and seems oblivious to Marie's attraction to her. Also, the members of
Alex's family shows up just long enough to get killed off. Heck, the family dog
got more characterization, which is saying something about the script by Aja and
"Haute Tension" is what it is, and it does what
it does very well. Cecile De France delivers a powerful performance despite all
the limitations of her character. But since "Tension" is a Teen
Slasher, it has its share of plot contrivances. A lot of questions will pop up
as you watch the movie, things that the filmmakers count on answering with a Big
Reveal. The film's big plot twist doesn't come completely out of left field, but
it also doesn't allow the audience to really guess at it beforehand
either. That may seem like a cheat to most, myself included, but again --
"Haute Tension" just does it so well, you'll probably forgive it.